Though “Safety Last!” was the name given by the Viennale this year to a special program compiling 12 Will Ferrell sketches from Saturday Night Live, it could have also titled an unofficial subsection of films during this year’s festival. We’re now past the midway point of the 51st Viennale, and I’ve already seen a number of features and documentaries in which people endure—or see themselves perilously close to enduring—profound hazards to their bodies.
Two such films premiered (and invited unlikely comparisons) at the Berlinale earlier this year: Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, by Quebecois writer-director Denis Côté, and Gold, a Canada-set western by German filmmaker Thomas Arslan. Both works contain a scene involving the lethal jaws of a bear trap. In Vic + Flo, the snap brings the film’s tonal peculiarity and suggestive menace to a logical endpoint, whereas in Gold it sends one of its more intriguing characters to an early death.
Set in 1898, Gold is frustratingly evasive about its period setting and is more interested in the (less interesting) playoffs between its ensemble of stiff stereotypes, led by stoically heroic Nina Hoss, who commands the screen with the more internalised emotional register for which she’s become known. In contrast, Vic + Flo is a much more assured character piece, about two ex-cons whose efforts for a quiet life are undone by social pressures and an avenging angel from one of their pasts. Throughout, Côté intrigues and compels through perfectly judged ellipses and calculated flourishes—not to mention uniformly impeccable performances.
Though the Viennale’s first screening of Vic + Flo was this critic’s second viewing, it was the first time I had seen it in a cinema, and the social setting brought an audible oomph during the aforementioned bear-trap scene. In J. P. Sniadecki’s less intense Demolition, the apparent absence of safety measures at a demolition site in Chengdu, the capital city of China’s Sichuan province, draws attention to the dangerous working conditions depicted therein. Sniadecki’s impressive ethnographic documentary, about itinerant workers dismantling a seemingly endless mess of rubble at a skate park manages to incorporate into its limited, ground-level perspective the labourers’ frequent frissons with employers. Nobody is hurt in the film, but watching these men toil away without a pair of steel-capped boots between them gives off a prolonged unease.
Peter Hutton’s Three Landscapes also foregrounds human labor as an active engagement with the material world. This beguiling, silent 16mm film presents a triptych of settings (Detroit, the Hudson River Valley, and Ethiopia’s Dallol Depression), each of which is shaped by human labor. Its first section culminates with a view of figures ascending Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, silhouetted against a monochrome sky, while the second section recalls those lengthy sequences in Patrick Keiller’s masterpiece Robinson in Ruins in which tractors prowl back and forth through the frame. The Dallol section is particularly stunning, in both its color (striking dusty terrains against a sharp blue sky) and its sun-soaked calm in contrast to the urban and rural landscapes that precede it. All three sections provide further evidence that “sense of place” in a film might have a lot to do with lighting: capturing the tone and feel of a place through cinematographic means. This is surely what a critic means by the word “immersive,” though for me, not enough filmmakers achieve it—by choice or otherwise. But when done right (think of Jeff Nichols or Paul Thomas Anderson), the results can almost transport you to another world entirely.
Nailing the feel of a place through precise lighting isn’t a problem for the formidably prolific South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo—or for his latest cinematographer, Park Hong-yeol. Our Sunhi, Hong’s most recent feature, evokes Rohmer in its talky treatment of how a film school graduate (Jung Yoo-mi) negotiates the romantic designs that three variably pathetic men have on her, and its deceptively complex rhythms and offbeat humor accumulate into an amusing, nuanced riff on cinema as a man’s world enlivened by mysterious objects of desire. At less than 90 minutes, the film is deft and cunning, and it had my full attention from that early scene in which Sunhi sits in a chicken joint drinking beer with a pal. The lighting is remarkable: framed in profile against a large window, Sunhi is almost a silhouette against the street outside, which seems at once to be invitingly and off-puttingly bright. Her own solitude—in a darkened place no less—seemed in some way to mirror that of the audience watching the film, as an autumnal sun shone down onto the streets of Vienna.
Viennale runs October 24—November 6.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay
This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.
On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)
Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.
As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.
Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.
Will Win: Green Book
Could Win: The Favourite
Should Win: First Reformed
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man